What is “Post-Normal” Science?

Written by 'Ticker,' The Belmont Club

Wikipedia shows that the curious term used by Mike Hulme, who argues Global Warming can only be met by something called “post-normal” science has a history of use in the environmental movement since the late 1980s and early 90s. I have interspersed the Wikipedia entry describing the term with my own commentary.

truth and lies

Post-Normal Science is a concept developed by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, attempting to characterise a methodology of inquiry that is appropriate for contemporary conditions. The typical case is when “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”. In such circumstances, we have an inversion of the traditional distinction between hard, objective scientific facts, and soft subjective values. Now we have value-driven policy decisions that are ‘hard’ in various ways, for which the scientific inputs are irremediably ‘soft’.

How are the values that drive these policy decisions derived? From whence do they come? And if their provenance does not derive from scientific fact, who chooses the appropriate values which should drive policy?

We can understand ‘Post-Normal Science’ by means of a diagram, where the axes are ‘systems uncertainties’ and ‘decision stakes’. When both are low, we have ‘applied science’, the routine puzzle-solving like the ‘normal science’ described by Thomas Samuel Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When either is medium, we have ‘professional consultancy’ for which the examples are the surgeon or the senior engineer. Although their work is based on science, they must always cope with uncertainties, and their mistakes can be costly or lethal. It had once been believed that environmental and general policy problems could be managed at this level, but the great issues of global warming and diverse forms of pollution show that framing and implementing policies must frequently be done before all the facts are in. Thus many problems occur in the high-stakes, high-uncertainty region of the diagram, a condition referred to as ‘post-normal.’

But wait. Weren’t we told that Global Warming was established scientific fact? That the world’s experts agreed on its existence? If so how can Global Warming be in the “high-stakes, high-uncertainty region” where post-normal and not normal science rules? In this special Twilight Zone where all the rules are suspended? The only way it can inhabit this region is if there is a high degree of uncertainty associated with it; in other words if “Global Warming” were only a theory and very iffy one at that.

Wikipedia continues.

 This is why there must be an ‘extended peer community’ consisting of all those affected by an issue who are prepared to enter into dialogue on it. They bring their ‘extended facts’, that will include local knowledge and materials not originally intended for publication such as leaked official information. There is a political case for this extension of the franchise of science; but Funtowicz and Ravetz also argue that this extension is necessary for assuring the quality of the process and of the product. In recent years the principles and practices of Post-Normal Science have been widely adopted under the title ‘participation’.

What is is this “extended peer community” and what is an “extended fact”? Is it extended like saltwater taffy or extended as in hamburger helper? Like the “values” which drive policy, who chooses these extended peers? What are their qualifications? Can anybody be a peer? All in all, the notion of “post-normal science” seems like a complete contradiction in terms or a perversion of the standard definition of science as commonly understood. It appears to be an elaborate and dishonest attempt to pass off the preferences of a single group as some kind of pseudo-science. There’s a much simpler term for this dishonest phrase: politics. Post-normal science is nothing but a cheap and lying term for a political diktat; for the rule of the self-appointed over everyone else. Whatever truth “Global Warming” may contain it has surely been damaged by its association with this disreputable and vile concept which brazenly casts aside the need for any factual basis and declares in the most unambiguous terms that whatever values it chooses to promote constitutes a truth unimpeachable by reality and a set of values that none dare challenge. Until “post-normal science” is repudiated as a method of proving “global warming” then both must share the same reputation.

More at: The Belmont Club


Tags: , , , , , ,